That reflects the region’s widespread censorship, as well as religious and political sensitivities.
In some places coverage was prominent, but remained largely factual. Editorial comment was limited or absent.
The story led Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, but it jostled for space with local stories on house price rises and mainland Chinese corruption. Taiwan’s China Post ran the story in second position but kept its distance. “Police manhunt after gunmen kill 12 in Paris” was its headline over agency copy.
China usually plays down reporting of terrorism. The online version of the official People’s Daily unusually carried live updates of the killings and police hunt Thursday. But its most viewed story of the past week is “10 Hottest Weapons in the World.”
One that did go further was largely Muslim Malaysia’s Malay Mail. It quoted Zairil Khir Johari, assistant national publicity secretary at political party DAP, as condemning the murders. “Such an act of barbarity goes against not only the universal values of humanity, but also the fundamental values of Islam as a religion of peace. We stand in solidarity with the French people during this terrible time.”
In predominantly Muslim Indonesia, the Jakarta Globe found no room for the story on its front page, leading instead with an update on the Air Asia search effort and travel security alerts from the U.S. and Australia. The Jakarta Post, backed by a prominent Christian family, saw an Associated Press story (“French weekly had history of angering Muslims”) draw the most online comments. The reader comments mostly focused on whether Western countries would react by treating their Muslim populations more harshly.
The style of coverage in the region comes as little surprise in Asia.
While some Asian governments claim an interest in freedom of media and expression, intimidation of the press is a state-led activity, and censorship is rife. In China the propaganda department issues daily directives on what should and should not be reported. Last week reporting of a lethal factory fire in Harbin was quickly suppressed and then changed, with the deaths of seven fire fighters concealed, but the names and full ranks of civil servants who coordinated rescue efforts featured prominently.
There is little room for anything as radical as a satirical magazine in the style of France’s Charlie Hebdo or Canard Enchainee or the U.K.’s Private Eye.
In the World Press Freedom Index the only Asian territory to rank in the 50 most free is Taiwan — in 50th place.
Even in Asian countries that outwardly hail democracy, the media is regularly circumscribed by government. In Japan, freelance and foreign media were repeatedly stymied in their coverage of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, with only journalists who were members of Kisha Clubs given access. In South Korea, President Park Geun-hye has attacked journalists reporting on the financial affairs of her brother and father. The Singapore government uses the legal systems to intimidate dissenting media. It requires more than a dozen news blogs to get a license and post a bail bond, and regularly takes the media to court. The Economist, International Herald tribune/New York Times and Wall Street Journal have all been fined.
In other parts of Asia, the intimidation of the media is more overt. In Hong Kong, the home of Jimmy Lai, proprietor of the anti-Beijing and pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, was raided last year. In Thailand, governments of all descriptions, even before the imposition of martial law in May last year, have used the country’s “lese majeste” laws to impose draconian punishments on media and private citizens alike. The editor of Voice of Thaksin was given an 11-year jail sentence. In 2009, while covering elections in the Philippines, at least 34 journalists were ambushed and executed.
The possibility of reprisal by government – or direct action by third parties – is an effective driver of self-censorship throughout Asia.
In India and Pakistan cinemas are regularly attacked, and almost no major film release goes without some kind of court challenge. Indian producer-director Karan Johar recently spoke of still being embroiled in court cases more than 12 years after the release of one of his movies.
And in China media watchers have recently been left wondering about the extent of the impact of a last-minute censorship problem that caused the cancellation of the premiere of “Gone With the Bullets.” The film is a ribald satire on greed, carefully set in the 1920s and 1930s so that the parallels with 21st century society are not made too obvious. The film has grossed more than $80 million but fallen well short of the $200 million box office that many predicted.
Its director, Jiang Wen, has first-hand experience of government action. He was banned from making films for seven years after his “Devils on the Doorstep” was judged to have depicted Japanese soldiers too kindly.